Jim Wallis Raises the Religious Right' Fave Strawman, Again
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Nov 13, 2006 at 03:09:34 PM EST
Jim Wallis is best known for his influential book God's Politics, which advances some progressive evangelical approaches to contemporary politics.  He is also becoming increasingly well known for advancing one of the central frames of the religious right, that somehow there is a "secular left" driving people "of faith" out of the "public square," among other affronts. Unfortunately, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) picked up this theme earlier this year in a now famous speech in which he sought to articulate a liberal approach to the role of religion in public life.  

To my knowledge, neither Wallis nor Obama has yet publicly described or defined the secular left or a single organization or prominent person in it. Nor have they ever named a single action taken, or article or book written by anyone associated with this mythological bogeyman. Both have claimed that secularists are playing counterproductive roles in the Democratic Party; but neither of them or any of their fans; have ever named a single Democratic leader anywhere in the United States who has behaved inappropriately, and what if anything, happened as a result.

In a recent article at Beliefnet Wallis was true to form, knocking down the secular lefty strawman.

Here is his opening sentence:  
In this election, both the Religious Right and the secular Left were defeated, and the voice of the moral center was heard.

Wow. That's quite an assertion. I thought to myself: 'Finally, Wallis is going to help me to understand exactly who and what this mysterious and influential movement really is: the secular left that he seems to equate in significance to the Religious Right -- which is certainly one of the the largest and most influential political and social movements in a century.'

Alas, my hopes were dashed. Wallis did not bother to support his thesis or define his terms. He not only failed to show how the secular left was defeated, he did not even bother to demonstrate that it exists -- or if it does, how it was an actor in the current elections it allegedly lost.

Secular bashing is an old tradition on the religious right, as Chip Berlet recounted here at Talk to Action:

The idea that a coordinated campaign by "secular humanists" was aimed at displacing Christianity as the moral bedrock of America actually traces back to a group of Catholic ideologues in the 1960s. It was Protestant evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, who brought this concept into the public political arena and developed a plan to mobilize grassroots activists as foot soldiers in what became known as the Culture Wars of the 1980s.

A popular theologian named Francis A. Schaeffer caught the attention of many Protestants in a series of books and essays calling on Christians to directly confront sinful and decadent secular culture with its humanist values...

[Evangelical scholar] George Marsden argues that this new focus on secular humanism "revitalized fundamentalist conspiracy theory"... Two leading activists of the Christian right, Gary Bauer and James Dobson, called the battle pitting secular humanists against Christians over the moral foundation of America a "great Civil War of Values".

The idea of a conscious and coordinated conspiracy of secular humanists has been propounded in various ways by a variety of national conservative organizations, including the Christian Coalition (Pat Robertson), the Eagle Forum (Phyllis Schlafly), Concerned Women for America (Beverly LaHaye), American Coalition for Traditional Values (Tim LaHaye), Christian Anti-Communism Crusade (Fred Schwarz), and the John Birch Society (Robert Welch).

By framing this set of claims as a conspiracy to provoke a "Culture War," conservative Christians transform political disagreements into a battle between the Godly and the Godless, between good and evil, and ultimately between those that side with God and those that wittingly or unwittingly side with Satan.

Perhaps Wallis, Obama and others are just unwittingly aping the slogans of the religious right and their allies over the past few decades. Perhaps they are doing something else. But whatever it is, as I wrote earlier this year:

Mindless secular bashing only gives strength to the religious right, and divides progressives and democrats against themselves.

Is Wallis really so intellectually invested in this strawman that he can be reasonably compared with Ann Coulter?

Meanwhile, as Moiv has reported here at Talk to Action, Wallis also attended a high-level antiabortion conference some years ago and signed onto a joint  statement with the likes of James Dobson, Ralph Reed and Fr. Frank Pavone.

As much as I appreciate Wallis' opposition to war and concern for the poor and wider issues of social justice, his adoption of the false, Manichean frame of the religious right, (invented as part of a wide-ranging attack on religious pluralism and separation of church and state), is disturbing, as is his antiabortion alliance with top leaders of the religious right.

of Wallis and others regarding the so-called secular left is more than tiresome. It is profoundly counterproductive, as people seek to come to grips with difficult matters of understanding the the religious right in particular, and more generally addressing the role of religion in public life.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Nov 13, 2006 at 03:12:41 PM EST

This is unfortunate. I'd hoped that he would rein in such indefensible claims.... it seems to me this statement is even balder than previous similar ones Wallis has made.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Nov 13, 2006 at 03:18:58 PM EST
Are either put off or downright angry about Wallis' "defeat of secularism" claim - by my count.

I think Jim Wallis would be best advised to temper his triumphalism and rein in his claims. Otherwise he risks undercutting the considerable good work Sojourners has done.

Given the realities of the "Faith Based Initiative", Wallis could soon find himself out on a limb.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Nov 13, 2006 at 07:46:34 PM EST

It seems to me that this has gone far beyond the point of a minor annoyancce.  For Wallis, it's become his major premise for being.  And it's just utterly false.  He's not helping a progressive faith perspective emerge so much as he's promoting a culture war on the left.

It seems to me we need something on the order of a major statement condemning his secular-bashing, and calling on him to recognize the wisdom of America's secular civic tradition, for its benefits to religion as well as to secular concerns.  We need to draft such a statement, and circulate it for signatures from a wide range of individuals and organizations.  (Perhaps just individuals first, to facilitate doing it quickly, but we should really do it with an eye toward gaining major organizational endorsements.)

This nonsense has gone on long enough.  It's time to put a stop to it.

by Paul Rosenberg on Mon Nov 13, 2006 at 10:43:27 PM EST

Yes, Wallis is promoting a culture war on the left. I agree that it's high time for a collective statement on this.

I'm in.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Nov 14, 2006 at 10:25:47 AM EST

I'd nominate Frederick to write the first draft.  I'd be happy to chime in and offer suggestions.  And I'd be happy to participate in outreach to gain signatories.

What say you, Frederick?

by Paul Rosenberg on Tue Nov 14, 2006 at 11:12:20 AM EST

In case Fred is busy, I suspect Dr. Bruce Prescott could do a fine job as well.

The bulk of the work, though, would be in getting significant people ( or orgs eventually, if possible ) to sign on.

But, it would be good to to give a sharper edge to the issue and to hold people to account for their language.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Nov 14, 2006 at 11:22:15 AM EST

(If there's something I can do to help.)

Check out Digby today if you want to see more scary "centrist" stuff. No wonder Wallis is a darling of the DLC crowd.  

by Psyche on Tue Nov 14, 2006 at 09:47:48 PM EST

 - but doesn't this example buttress the argument made by Sam Harris and others that the latitude granted to religious "moderates" serves to enable the extremists?

Otoh, if the statement proposed above is successfully crafted and circulated, might not that serve to the same degree in rebutting Harris's assertion?

(A request to those who might draft proposed replies: please word them to allow signing by non-believing activists as well as Wallis's fellow evangelists.)

by Pierce R Butler on Tue Nov 14, 2006 at 09:21:38 PM EST

I think there are many ways of viewing the relationship of extremist to moderate views. "Extremist" and "radical" are - to begin with - characterizations that have meaning only in relation to preexisting views. "Radical" as compared to what ?

Meanwhile, Sam Harris holds a few possibly extremist views of his own - he says that it may be ethical to kill people because of their beliefs. I disagree. Quite strongly.

I very much agree with your qualifications for a possible statement - both atheists and religious adherents should feel welcome.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Nov 14, 2006 at 10:41:41 PM EST

In fact, Sam Harris' spurious screed is a clever exercise in old fashioned anti-religious bigotry. He blames people who are not fundamentalists for the excesses of fundamentalism for the sole reason that they are religious.

Harris's contributions to public discussion of these matters are, IO, counterproductive, at best.

As for a statement about Wallis, it would not be intended to be a statement for or against religion of any kind. It would be a call to end an intellectually dishonest method of public discourse, one consequence of which is to corrode respect for deocratic pluralism, in a way that reenforces the religious right.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Nov 16, 2006 at 05:16:39 PM EST

The worldview that Wallis reflects when he talks about secular humanists on the left is not only a meme of the Religious Right -- although they have exploited it -- but it is very much part of the worldview among Christian college students with whom I have worked.  For those students, coming to terms with derision and even rejection by some of their classmates is part of moving from late adolescent to young adult faith (in James Fowler's terms, from stage 3 to stage 4).  When their atheist professors or classmates write off Christians as stupid (and college students aren't always tactful), some Christian students perceive this not only as a rejection of their faith but as a rejection of them as human beings.  Even liberal Protestant students are often reluctant to mention to fellow progressive activists that they are Christians.  Stage 3 Christianity is very dependent upon relationships (personal relation to Jesus, connection to the personality of a religious leader, the approval of members of one's valued community).  As students move from dependent to independent faith, they are better equipped to handle challenges to their faith or even rejection of it without taking it personally.

Of course there are atheists and agnostics on the left.  Some of them will be more than willing to tell leftist Christians their opinion of religion whether asked or not.  We witnessed many pie wars on dKos over religion -- some instigated by theists -- before Street Prophets was formed.

The solution for Democrats reaching out to religious voters is not to tell atheists to shut up or to pretend they don't exist, it also isn't to put a Christian veneer over the party, saying "we have [Christian] values too" (which only makes Democrats look like fundy-lite).

Jim Wallis needs to stop pandering to adolescents and grow up.  There are atheists and people of various faiths in the Democratic Party and among the common values we share is fighting for our Constitution, which is supposed to protect religious freedom -- including the freedom to practice no religion --for all of us.

by Rusty Pipes on Fri Nov 17, 2006 at 08:56:50 PM EST

on the nature of Christian and personal maturity. However, I think that this is only part of Wallis' problem.

The problem as a I see it is basic intellectual dishonesty.

The challenge put out by Pastordan, me and others has yet to be answered.  Wallis, Obama and others have yet to name a single Democratic Party leader anywhere in the U.S. at any level who behaves in the ways that they describe.

Let us note that there are also more than a few Republican and libertarian atheists.

Karl Robe is an atheist. And David Kuo has pointed out that the White House political staff regularly referred to the leaders of the religious right on the weekly conference call as "the nuts." And anyone who has ever met a serious Ayn Rand objectivist knows, you are more than likely to be called stupid if seen as religious.  If antireligiosity is such a big social problem, it is curious that those concerned about it never get around to mentioning those folks.

But so far the Wallis/Obama axis has yet to offer a single example of anyone's faith or the expression thereof being suppressed in public life.

Those who  are concerned about the roile of the religious right at all levels of society owe it to themselves to stop the promotion of the false frames of the religious right by their leaders.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Nov 20, 2006 at 10:22:49 AM EST

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